Aug 5, 2009

On Parenting

Santa Cruz, CA August 5, 2009

Knowing this is a sensitive issue for those of us who are present or former parents, I hasten to point out that the following essay is just a collection of some of my ideas, placed here to stimulate further thought on this important topic. I have noted that parenting seems to have fads and fashions - young parents seem to agree on certain principles of parenting without necessarily examining alternatives. I have seen a lot of changes in parenting styles over the last half century and they seem generally to have been an improvement. Parents certainly seem more committed to the task and devote a lot more attention to their offspring. But does all this attention benefit the child? Your mileage may on.

Early childhood - From the moment of birth, the child has primitive programming for survival, like all living beings. This need to survive gives rise to the first and most important childhood game - domination. Since children need adults to survive, the ability to control those adults becomes crucial. As the child reaches the first birthday, domination techniques have moved beyond simple crying. Haven't we all seen bored toddlers sitting on the floor creating a fuss just to see if they can move 130 pounds of adult human from the the kitchen to the living room. It gives them a sense of security to feel that they can control their caregivers.
But there are limits to domination. I assert that it is important that parents teach the child the difference between "I need" and "I want". The child must always know that it's survival will be assured, that it is loved and it's parents will always be there. But wanting some brightly colored cheap toy in the supermarket is not survival - and crying or tantrums absolutely will not deliver that toy. After this lesson has been delivered and the tears have dried, it is important that the child receive a large dose of love and touching - but in a way that is not connected with any specific behavior, but simply as a consequence of being alive and being loved. In time, the child learns the difference between survival and wanting things.... a good first step.

Crying and Tantrums - Let's be clear that we are not talking about crying about hunger, diaper pins, gas, skinned knees or any other normal childhood need. Of course children cry. We are talking about dominating and demanding. Crying and tantrums are the first tools a child uses to dominate its environment and so the early parental reaction to this behavior is crucial in shaping the development of the child. At the time the child begins this behavior it is too young to reason with (I assert). We are dealing with primitive rage at being denied something that the child wants. Crying is a powerful tool for the child because, in these busy times, parents are trying to juggle far too many tasks in a single day and the overwhelming impulse is to do something that will get the child to be quiet. But if the child wants something, then hugging and comforting won't stop the crying. Getting the desired object will work of course, but at the price of rewarding behavior that we really don't want to become habitual. Here I am not just talking about the child wanting a toy that is just out of reach, but something that the child really cannot have.

And so, there will be those times when the child is crying or throwing a tantrum when the child will have to be removed from a space where it is annoying adults and placed in a room where it can cry safely all it wants. This is harder on the parents than capitulation, but pays big dividends. It doesn't take many alone-in-a-room crying sessions before the child begins to learn that crying is not it's best tool. And as soon as the child stops crying, touching and loving attention brings its world back into balance.

Discipline - to many this sounds like a dirty word, connoting a sort of rigid Prussian hard-heartedness. To digress a bit, a few years ago when we were sailing, we stopped at a luxury resort in Costa Rica that was hosting a convention of child psychologists. Over cocktails, they were asking, when did the word "OK" come into parenting - as in "I want you to go clean up your room, OK?" The fact is that the parent wants the child to clean the room and the OK part is a lie. It is also a fact that the child probably doesn't want to clean the room because it is having much more fun playing. Since the parents have discarded their inherent authority with the word "OK", it is clear to the child that cleaning the room is, at least for a while, an option - not a requirement.

But the questions from the therapists was why would the parents want to deny their inherent authority with this throwaway word OK? When did it become uncool for parents to be in charge? When did everything come to have to be negotiated?

I would assert that the child desperately needs the parent to be in charge - again based on the need for survival. In the primitive brain, "If they can't control something as small as me, how can they protect me from the world?" Psychologists talk about the need for limits and the lengths that a child will go to to find some limits. When I worked with delinquent youth, I saw first hand the extent that kids will go to get their parents (and society) to control them.

To clear the air a bit so that we can discuss discipline productively, let's create a definition of the word - let's say that that discipline involves having to do something that one doesn't want to do. There are two kinds of discipline: external discipline and self discipline. External discipline is someone else making us do something that we don't want to do. Self discipline is when we make ourselves do something that we don't want to do - like getting up for work the morning after a big party. We all would agree that self discipline is a crucial part of the formula for success. But I assert that until a child has experienced and survived external discipline, there is little possibility for self discipline. With gentle, but firm external discipline, the child discovers that it can do something that it doesn't want to do and then life goes on just fine. It is OK to do something that one doesn't want to do. This is an enormously important skill! As adults, we spend the majority of our time doing things we don't really want to do. We have successfully adjusted to this by just convincing ourselves that we really do want to do what we are doing so that we can reach some desired goal. But under all that, wouldn't we really prefer to wake up when we want, request the breakfast we want, be taken to the beach, and generally be pampered and spoiled all the time. See, we don't even consider that possible! Life taught us about discipline. We need to do that for our children - with love and gently, but also firmly.

As children grow, they begin to set up power struggles - to test their limits (and our commitment to their safety). A basic rule that I lived by as a parent is: if the child sets up a power struggle, the parent must ALWAYS win. Always! Yes, the commotion created by a power struggle could be ended more quickly and quietly by the parent giving in, but that just teaches the child how to dominate the parent more effectively. If the parents defeat the power-struggle-game early in childhood, the child may abandon it entirely - leading to a safe and relatively tranquil adolescence. On the other hand, let a teenager run a power struggle and the results can be truly dangerous. Better to deal with it early. Again, loving reassurance after the struggle is finished is the second part of ALWAYS.

Food Games - This is a game that is primarily created by parents, but children take advantage of it as a way to practice domination. It starts early. When the baby comes off the breast and starts eating solid food, parents notice that they prefer creamed corn to creamed peas and so, wanting the child to be well nourished, they buy more creamed corn. Of course. But at some time, the child is ready to sit at the table with the rest of the family. That is the time when the parents have to stand up as parents. The question, "would you like?" is the invitation to play food games. I assert that there should be no question - just the statement "today we are having...." The child does not get to choose the menu and absolutely does not get to have special foods that the rest of the family are not having. That doesn't mean that their favorites don't get on the menu from time to time - of course they do. But they don't select the menu.
Now the child has a choice - eat what is being served or don't eat what is being served. There will be another meal in 6 to 8 hours. No child ever starved from missing a meal. When the family food is what there is to eat, the child will eat it without games. The less the parents fuss over the child eating, the better. Matter-of-fact comment: "Oh, you don't see anything you want. That's too bad. Well, maybe you'll like breakfast."
Of course, if the child doesn't eat the regular meal, there will be no treats or snacks coming out of the icebox later. Conversely, if the child eats a little of everything, it qualifies for whatever treat the family might have later on. This sounds harsh - but it only lasts for a little while and then the child goes on to eat pretty much what is available and the issue is gone.
What is really harsh is to let the child develop a major food game. I have seen children who have taken this so far that they are socially crippled for life because they only eat a handful of foods. What the parents didn't do is now getting done by the cold, cruel world.

Why don't children want to grow up? - I started grappling with this question when I started to seek a reason for the persistence of drug abuse. I started to realize that people use drugs because their lives don't give them anything to look forward to. To add a little responsibility to that statement, I'll restate - that people have failed to find a purpose for themselves that gets them out of bed in the morning and shapes their daily lives. Since those folks find that life is unrewarding and boring, then drugs make things seem a little better - self medication.

But we are talking about children - and some of them going on into their twenties without finding anything more challenging than sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. What happens that makes them want to cling to childhood? Why does adulthood seem so unappealing? If we go back to last century, children grew up in small towns. With no mass media, they didn't think of themselves as teenagers. They didn't have their own culture and mores. They went to school and when they left high school, they started acting like adults. They went to work and started their own families. But now there is teen culture, drug culture, surfer culture, punk culture, you-name-it culture that offer a pre-packaged identity kit for those who don't want to grow up.

So what can parents do to take the fear out of adulthood? Well, it starts with chores. Yes, chores! I assert that middle and upper-class young folks today are waited on by their parents, chauffeured to soccer games, ballet classes, etc. without being asked to give anything back. They pass a childhood of ease, make a show of going to school (public schools now being so easy that they are rarely even challenged), Mommy and Daddy pay for college, buy them a BMW and so they arrive at the gates of adulthood with a minimum of effort expended. These young people have gotten to spend quite a lot of time doing what they wanted. They have been essentially parasitic - and awareness of this does little for self confidence or self esteem. Then suddenly we ask them to climb onto the treadmill and become a "consuming unit" - going to work to support their families and starting to make payments on stuff for the rest of their lives. (This could easily become it's own essay). This drastic change is a bit of a shock.

But we were talking about chores. I assert that every child should begin doing chores as soon as possible. When they can walk and work a broom, they get a floor to sweep. Of course, parents know that it is often easier to do the task than to assign it to a child because when it is assigned to a child, the parent has to ensure that the child has the necessary motor skills to succeed, that the child understands the importance of the chore, and that the child knows what successful completion of the chore looks like. Parental supervision is mandatory, especially early. Once a chore is assigned, it must be completed successfully - absolutely! Slipshod adult workers probably learned that they could get away with half-measures by parents who were themselves slipshod in their supervision. While the quality of a completed task may not be quite as good as it would be if done by the parent, obvious faults or errors will need to be corrected gently. Once the chore is satisfactorily completed, thanks and praise are the appropriate reward. Treats and rewards should be reserved for special efforts, not routine chores. Treats can be appropriate as a recognition for being helpful generally - in a way that is not associated with any particular chore. Older children should have an increasing load of routine chores and should get more and more responsibility along with it.

From the parental standpoint, assignment of chores involves 1) clear definition of the task and the standards for satisfactory completion; 2) supervision of the ongoing task (without obvious "hovering") and evaluation of the quality - repetition if necessary; and 3) praise and recognition on completion. No part of this can be skipped. It is no surprise that busy parents prefer to park the children in front of some electronic device instead of involving them in family tasks. But this is abdication of parenthood and the loss of one of the greatest opportunities to really teach them something about life.

Chores have several benefits for children - first, they come to see themselves as contributing members of their families (and parents can help that process by pointing it out). This creates or enhances a sense of self-worth. Secondly, by learning to successfully complete tasks assigned by others to standards of others, children learn to tolerate discipline (that word again) and learn important lessons about completing tasks and working under supervision. To point out that these skills will be used throughout an entire lifetime might be overstating the obvious.

Parents as examples - most of us recognise the most obvious ways that children are influenced by parental example. If we get tattoos, use street slang, use drugs, and talk about burglaries in front of them, then they will probably grow up to be outlaws. If we work hard to support our families, put off current pleasures for future rewards, keep ourselves informed about the world we live in; recycle; all these things will have a positive influence on our children.

But there is another, perhaps more important, example that we can set for our children. And this one directly addresses the question "why don't our children want to grow up?" This one is not so obvious and nobody ever told us how important it would be for our children.

I assert that one of the most important examples we can set, right behind integrity, is to have fun! Yes, to have fun! We are our children's futures. They see that they are going to grow up to be like us. If we are bogged down in problems, struggling with life and getting beat up by it, then why would they want to follow in our footsteps? No, they need to see joy - they need to see love - and they need to see fun! That gives them a future worth living into.

For many of us, that means we'll need to learn something because we aren't particularly having fun at the moment. Yes, that is right. As parents, we get too damned serious about life and it is time to remember that this is it - we can't go back when we are 80 and start having fun. So whatever your circumstances, it is possible without changing anything but your attitude to create a little fun in daily life. Dare to be silly; sing dopey songs; extract every possible element of fun from the virtual cesspool in which you find yourself. And not only do your children benefit, but so do you! Might not be all that bad for the marriage as well, huh?

So the bottom line of this essay is - find the fun in your everyday life and build some fun into your future. No, don't spend the inheritance on a new ski boat - fun is not about stuff and having stuff. Fun is something you do - even more important, fun is something you are! If you are fun, your children will thank you for a fabulous future.